The Calculated Creative

Memphis Graphic Design

Memphis graphic design had an electrifying, and brief, run that rebelled against modernist conventions through its bold and colorful aesthetic.

Memphis is a style of graphic design that emerged in Milan, Italy in the 1980s.

It is characterized by bold colors, geometric shapes, and loud patterns that rebelled against the minimalism and functionality of modernism.

Memphis graphic design had a significant impact.

Though it was also divisive and controversial.


The Memphis Group was founded in Milan in 1981 by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass.

Sottsass gathered a group of young designers who were inspired by postmodernism and wanted to create a new radical style.

The 1980s postmodern movement rejected the seriousness and functionalism of modernism in design.

The name "Memphis" was chosen for the group by Sottsass.

It came from the Bob Dylan song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" and was meant to represent their desire to break free from the constraints of design norms.

The Memphis Group first presented their bold collection of postmodern furniture and household objects at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981.

Their irreverent and colorful style made an instant splash and was quickly influential around the world, though many saw it as kitschy and superficial.

The postmodern Memphis style remained popular through the 1980s, especially in graphic design, architecture, and furniture design.

However, by the late 1980s it fell out of fashion as the initial shock of the style wore off.

Still, Memphis had carved out an important place in design history for shaking up modernist design rules and inspiring future postmodern graphic design.


Memphis design is known for its wild, eclectic visual style that mixes colors, patterns, and shapes in an unconventional way. Some key characteristics include:

  • Bright and bold colors like yellow, red, black, and white that often clash
  • Geometric abstract shapes like squares, triangles, zigzags, and squiggles
  • Asymmetric and irregular patterns instead of symmetry
  • Mixing and matching loud prints and colors that don't match
  • Postmodern pastiche drawing from various eras like Art Deco and Pop Art
  • Literal shapes and patterns referencing physical objects
  • Irreverent use of words, letters, numbers, and symbols as decorative elements
  • Playful and absurdist visual motifs with a sense of humor
  • Rejection of minimalism and Bauhaus functional style
  • Radical departure from modernism's "form follows function" ethos

The Memphis style has a lively, loud, and deliberately outrageous visual energy designed to provoke and push boundaries.

Their wild patterns, colors, and shapes flew in the face of restrained modernist sensibilities.

Key Designers

The influential Memphis Group included both established and up-and-coming designers who contributed to the movement. Some of the key figures were:

Ettore Sottsass - Founder of the Memphis Group, Sottsass was the leader who orchestrated the design collective. He had previously worked as a designer for Olivetti. His furniture designs defined the Memphis style with colorful laminates and geometric forms.

Michele De Lucchi - De Lucchi was a prominent Memphis Group designer who created furniture with bold, abstract shapes. He designed the iconic First chair made from laminate and metal.

George Sowden - Sowden's furniture had a pop art aesthetic with bright colors and abstract shapes. He designed the viable Postmodern armchair and Sideboard for Memphis.

Martine Bedin - Bedin created furniture with angular and asymmetric forms combined with loud patterns and colors. Her triangular Super lamp was a signature Memphis piece.

Nathalie Du Pasquier - Du Pasquier designed vibrant textiles and prints for Memphis in an abstract geometric style. Her patterns contributed to the Memphis aesthetic.

Michael Graves - The American architect Michael Graves incorporated Memphis influences in his postmodern buildings and products. He collaborated with Sottsass and Alessi.

These designers gave the Memphis Group its energy and visual identity that made it so recognizable. Their bold work defined postmodern design in the 1980s.


The Memphis design style declined in popularity by the late 1980s as the initial shock value and novelty wore off.

Critics increasingly saw Memphis design as superficial, cartoonish, and lacking substance.

The postmodern collage of historical references and playful irony felt overdone.

The anti-functionalist philosophy also limited Memphis design to the realm of the avant-garde rather than everyday use.

By 1988, the Memphis Group disbanded as tastes shifted.

However, Memphis left a permanent mark on design history as an influential postmodern art and design movement.

Traces of its irreverent style live on in graphic design today.

It paved the way for future experimental and conceptual design that broke the modernist mold.

Even with its demise, Memphis was an important revolt against minimalism that gave designers more creative freedom to explore eclectic styles.

The Takeaway

Memphis graphic design had an electrifying if brief run that rebelled against modernist conventions.

While no longer in the mainstream, its bold and colorful aesthetic opened new possibilities in graphic design.

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